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Review by C.J. Bunce

Did J.J. Abrams earn or reject his Jar Jar badge?  Did we drown in re-hashed lines from the original trilogy?  Did Disney make the same mistakes as George Lucas made with his prequels?

When you get right down to it, we all had a pretty low threshold by which we were going to judge the success of the highly anticipated, overly over-marketed Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  We knew it couldn’t match the original Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, but it was Abrams’s challenge to see how high he could position the result of his efforts among the other four films.

So how did he fare?

Is the movie better than the prequels?

Is the dialogue better than George Lucas’s in the past films?

Did he hand off the story from the old guard to the new guard successfully?

Is The Force Awakens a modern sci-fi fantasy classic, or among the best films ever made?

Boyega and Isaac

After the jump, I’ll walk though my spoiler-light reaction to what is going to go down as the biggest money-making film of all time.

So…

Is the movie better than the prequels?  Yes.  Thankfully.

Is the dialogue better than George Lucas’s in the past films?  Yes.  And only once did I notice a standard re-hashed line from the original trilogy.

Did Abrams hand off the story from the Old Guard to the New Guard successfully?  Yes.  Harrison Ford and Daisy Ridley in particular had some great chemistry, and Carrie Fisher offered a much better performance than I ever would have expected.

Is The Force Awakens a modern sci-fi fantasy classic, or among the best films ever made?  Heck no.  But it did do some things very, very well.  First and most importantly, it gave us a universe made up of not just white males and only a few token representatives of other races and women.  Daisy Ridley’s Rey is the character Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia could have been in Return of the Jedi (other than her awesome Boussh scene) and that Natalie Portman’s Padme Amidala should have been in the prequels.  Rey is the best heroine in a strong year for heroines, with great performances from the likes of Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor in Terminator: Genisys and Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road.  John Boyega, who we loved in Attack the Block, plays ex-Stormtrooper Finn in the most emotional role in the film, adding some good humor and intrigue to a very different kind of space hero.

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The Force Awakens is fun in the same way it’s fun to go to the amusement park.  That will be enough for most moviegoers this holiday season.  In many ways it is “just another fun holiday popcorn movie” that showed Disney could play off Lucas’s business strengths and make a monumental mint for the studio in the process.  There’s certainly something to be said about enjoying a movie simply because it is good escapist fun.  Why not?  Disney brought forth a dead movie franchise and did the unthinkable, and that’s just awesome.

So long as you’re prepared for the fact that Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back still stand alone at the top of the Great Movie Scale, and The Force Awakens is somewhere alongside Return of the Jedi, yet still above the prequels, then you can’t be very disappointed with this latest Episode.  You might think of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back as comparable to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  The prequels are in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier territory, and now The Force Awakens is closer to the campy but fun Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (notably the most successful Star Trek movie financially until Abrams rolled into town).

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For another analogy you might think of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back in the realm of greatness with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  The Force Awakens thankfully is no Temple of Doom, but where it lacks some punch and emotion, some concepts, like bringing in the Old Guard, does give it the feel of Indiana Jones and The Crystal Skull.  The strengths of the new, younger actors and their story really made it unnecessary to have an appearance by either Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher.  Although their acting was better than expected, their characters’ stories were a bit forced.  Like Crystal Skull, we even got to meet Harrison Ford’s character’s far lesser in every way estranged son.

There will be something for everyone to walk away and talk about.  For me the best bits were Rey, Finn, the brilliantly real-world, non-CGI droid BB-8, the fact that Peter Mayhew was able to return to play such a key role again as Chewbacca, the surprise appearance of Greg Grunberg (yes, they really had me at Grunberg), and the overall look of the film, from wall fixtures to familiar ships and even Snowtroopers and Sandtroopers.  Where Abrams felt the need to update the look of Star Trek for his movies, Abrams recognized the nostalgia factor of letting Star Wars look like Star Wars.  When Abrams played in the CGI toybox, he had both a hit and a failure.  Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata is wonderful, equal parts Edna Mode from The Incredibles and Yoda.  But disappointingly Andy Serkis’s inexplicably large Supreme Leader Snoke looks un-real, like Thanos in Guardians of the Galaxy instead of Serkis’s brilliantly realized Golem from The Lord of the Rings.  Episode VII may just have too many villains, to the point that the much-ballyhooed Captain Phasma has little more than a throwaway role.

The problems?  For one, if you’re bringing in the Old Guard, for me, I only ever cared about Luke Skywalker.  Han Solo was secondary.  Thankfully Abrams & Co. prepped us for the fact that Luke was not the star of this film, but they should have warned us he doesn’t even get a minute on-screen (although he sure looked awesome for those seconds, complete with borg hand and Ben Kenobi-style cloak).  Again, I would have preferred leaving Hamill, Ford, and Fisher out of this one entirely.  If you’re going to go forward, just do it: Make your peace with the old and leave it behind.  But Abrams can’t do that, just like he kept going back to Leonard Nimoy in each of his Star Trek movies.

SW race

And the big water cooler debates will be about re-hashing past stories, notably the fact that, like Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness was a complete retread of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a mirror image of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.  Star Wars has always been about imagination, and George Lucas sneaked on us a smart attention to the myths and legends mankind passes from generation to generation in a very classical way.  You must ask whether Abrams has any imagination at all, or whether Disney simply didn’t allow him to do anything but adhere to some prepared from On High, Constitution-class outline.  Another farm kid on a desert planet?  Another droid carrying secret information?  And seriously, another–a third?!?!?–Death Star?  Who even let that get past the first draft?  And we won’t even talk about the unworthy death of a key character, almost Boba Fett style.

Critics of Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be accused of being haters this holiday season, no doubt.  But there is nothing to hate here really.  Nitpicking aside, The Force Awakens is awesome and fun in the same way as Guardians of the Galaxy.  But if you’re a member of the 501st Legion and looking for some kind of religious experience I don’t think you’ll find it here.

J.J. Abrams didn’t create anything as flinchworthy as Jar Jar Binks or Midichlorians.  He delivered an enjoyable movie that will make hundreds of millions of Star Wars fans around the globe happy this Christmas.  That alone makes Star Wars: The Force Awakens a success.  And with all the questionable decisions by Abrams at the detail level, there will be plenty to talk about until the opening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in theaters December 16, 2016.

 

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